Cross-Border Cooperation in Education: Still More Barriers Than Benefits
Making the most of the expertise and skills on the other side of the border. That is the desire of people in the education sector in The Netherlands and Flanders alike. But this wishful, border-breaking collaboration is struggling to get off the ground due to legal obstacles and governmental oversight that isn’t always so benevolent. ‘It is only priority number 1,265.’
Proudly, the toddlers come to show their work to the strange man who is sitting in class with them today. He’s a guest at primary school ‘De Driesprong’ in the southern Zeelandic Flanders region, where Miss Silke Vansant, a native of Vorselaar (Antwerp Province) is doing an internship. The visitor praises their work and in passing asks a suggestive question: ‘Isn’t it odd having a teacher with such a strange accent?’ He receives baffled looks in reply. ‘She’s actually pretty good,’ says a girl.
In a small office afterwards, Vansant explained that she was keen to do an internship on the other side of the border. ‘I chose The Netherlands because it’s often ahead of Belgium, especially when it comes to playful learning. That is, learning while using real materials, each in their own way. But I have to say it has been a slight disappointment, perhaps because my expectations were too high. It is still often on paper here, and the same for every student.’
Flemish teacher in the Netherlands: 'They really do look at each child individually to see what they should be able to achieve'
Still, she has learned something in The Netherlands. 'They really do look at each child individually to see what they should be able to achieve, and whether they will need extra care to get them there', says the young teacher. 'In Flanders, it’s more like: we’ll do some fun activities and then think of a goal to accompany them. Here, in The Netherlands, it is: I have this goal and what do I need to do to make sure that the children can reach it?'
In Belgium, Miss Vansant thinks, they could also take note of the Dutch children’s independence. 'Here they only start school aged four, but in Belgium, they’re in school already at two and a half. I have the sense that this continues through school. ‘They can’t do that yet, so we’ll do it for them’ is often the way educators think in Belgium. Here it’s more: you do it yourself, or if you can’t yet, then another child will help you, and only after that will a teacher step in.'
But Vansant hasn’t definitively chosen which country she wants to work in just yet. 'In Belgium, it takes a very long time to refer children with extra needs', she observes. 'If that works better here, then I’d feel more at home emotionally in The Netherlands because at least then I can do something positive for those children.” But she’s not entirely sure that the northern neighbours really have organised these things better. 'There was help offered here, but due to a lack of teachers it was sadly too little.'
Dutch coach Veerle Duitemeijer: 'The training of Dutch students is much less deep than in Flanders'
Her coach Veerle Duitemeijer agrees. 'We’re already stretched thin, and we also have an unwell colleague we can’t find a replacement for. It was great that you were here, Silke, so that I had my hands free to work with some of the children.'
She is full of praise for the Flemish intern. 'The basic skillset that Silke has is just a lot stronger than the one you see with Dutch students.' In Flanders, Silke trained specifically to teach infants, whereas in The Netherlands the equivalent training concerns the whole primary school spectrum. 'Dutch students get a little bit of everything, but their training is much less deep', says Duitemeijer.
A short walk around De Driesprong is all that’s needed to realise that the Flemish-Dutch exchange can be educational for both parties. 'We think about education far too much from a national perspective', suggests renowned education expert Dirk Van Damme. In February, he spoke at a busy colloquium at Ghent’s Havenhuis about border-breaking education in the North Sea Port region, the area from Ghent to Vlissingen, home to Europe’s first bi-national port. He advocates for an ecological approach that embeds education into the regional community, in the local values and needs that really don’t change so drastically if a border happens to run through a region.
What they are urgently in need of in North Sea Port is technical personnel. One of the speakers in the Havenhuis is Greet Van Dender, director of Richtpunt Campus Hamme, a technical secondary school. She is pulling the emergency break. The image of technical education is so poor that parents no longer want to send their children to the school, pupil intake is ‘frighteningly low’ and so much time is spent on student counselling that there is barely any left in which to teach.
This is a society-wide problem for which she can’t just find a quick fix, she says later on the phone. 'If they’ve learned to see the world in a particularly bleak, hopeless way at home, then they bring that with them to school and it’s very difficult to teach them other values.'
Director Greet Van Dender: 'Technical and trade education is "twice as strong" because you learn to work with your hands and your mind'
The image of technical education, which has been poor for some thirty years already, is no easier to polish up. While industry begs for technical personnel, parents value cognitive and communicational skills more than the ability to work with one’s hands. They prefer overwhelmingly to send their children to a general secondary education. But because of the Flemish "waterfall system" many of these students have to eventually “flunk out” into technical or trade education. Pupils who have been walking on eggshells for years then stream into Van Denders school in numbers, with broken self-confidence. 'That’s when we lose a great deal of time to student counselling. Added to that, there’s the issue that we haven’t been able to work with students on the core competencies that they learn here with us.'
Students in technical and trade education feel that society looks down upon them. 'People who work with their hands are still seen as inferior', says the school director. This is something she knows from her own youth. 'My father’s hands were always dirty. He was a car mechanic and could never get the grease off them. That’s why he was seen as lesser.' The anger is still audible in her voice. 'And yet everybody needed him because he could make anything,' she remembers. 'It’s for that making that you also need expertise. In reality, technical and trade education is ‘twice as strong’ because you learn to work with your hands and your mind.'
In late January 2023, Flemish Minister of Education Ben Weyts announced plans to organise competitions for technical and trade students with The Netherlands. 'Every little helps', says Van Dender. 'I can only applaud this initiative. It contributes to the self-esteem of our students.'
She is also enthusiastic about the fact that education ministers in The Netherlands and Flanders see this as an opportunity for closer collaboration. 'We can always learn from each other', she says. In a previous job as a coordinator of international projects, she was in touch with the Da Vinci College in Dordrecht. There she saw the close relationships between trade education and local industry. 'That’s also getting started in Flanders now', observes Van Dender. 'We recently had a networking event with the Chamber of Commerce. That’s good for the self-respect of our students. They see: our school is actually really important for companies.'
Shrinkage and sharing knowledge
Also a passionate advocate of border-breaking education is Gorik Hageman, the Zeelandic education ambassador and German teacher at the Renaertscollege in Hulst. 'We have a number of schools on both sides of the border fighting with shrinkage', says Hageman. 'The region is less popular, the youth is leaving, fewer children are being born, and so there are also fewer children coming to school here. On both sides, you have schools that are getting into trouble because their pupil intakes are dropping. In Koewacht there are two primary schools less than a mile apart. They both have to work really hard just to survive. If you could combine their energy and resources, then you could solve those problems.'
Shrinkage is less of an issue in Limburg, there it’s really more about knowledge exchange, says Sarah Schoenmakers. She is a professor of European Law at the Dutch Open University, a senior lecturer on the juridical faculty is Maastricht and a professor in Hasselt, where there is an intensive collaboration with Leuven University. 'In law in Maastricht you have ten master’s degrees, and within those, there are even different specialisations', Schoenmakers explains.
'It’s fantastic that people with specialisations in specific niches can teach less than twenty kilometres away. For students, it’s an expansion of their options if they can attend classes over the border. For educators, it’s enriching to get to know each other’s work and to be able to collaborate. For universities, it’s a chance to focus their resources. They needn’t hire yet another person for a specific niche.'
Overcoming national legislation
Benefiting from each other’s skills and knowledge and adopting the best practices of the neighbours. This is the beauty of border-breaking collaboration. In practice, though, this happens only little by little due to legal and practical obstacles. 'You bump into legislation that makes it impossible at this point in time', says Hageman. 'Think, for example, of curricular obligations on both sides of the border. We’re looking now at whether we can work more with European funds and whether we can set up a European Group for Territorial Collaboration (EGTS). That would make it possible to overcome the different national legislations that apply to the Flemish-Dutch delta region. But that’s pretty complicated.'
Border-breaking collaboration happens only little by little due to legal and practical obstacles
Schoenmakers also points to the stumbling blocks that lie ahead. 'First of all, I think of the practical question: where do I have to pay taxes and social security? Certainly in an age in which telecommuting has become the norm, this brings with it many uncertainties. The European Union has rules on this, but the member states interpret these individually according to what benefits them, which means that people are often taxed twice, even when there is a tax treaty. In terms of social security, there has fortunately been significant progress recently, which is a real leap forward.'
The Zeelandic education ambassador is investigating similar bottlenecks. He has a striking example to offer. 'A Flemish teacher of Latin at my school in Hulst has two daughters at a school in Sint-Niklaas. She heard that the Latin teacher at that school had been long-term absent. She wanted to use the two weeks in the May vacation, when she is on holiday at our school here, to work temporarily at Sint-Niklaas to ensure that the students there don’t fall too far behind. When she asked her accountant about this, they told her: don’t do it; it would be financial suicide. The advantage of working in The Netherlands as a Flemish citizen, and being taxed only in The Netherlands would be entirely lost because of teaching Latin for two weeks at a school a mere eighteen kilometres away.'
These are problems that, with a little governmental cooperation, should be solvable, you would think. Is there any? 'I have the feeling that people here in The Netherlands often think more actively about this', says Schoenmakers, who lives in Belgian Limburg. 'During the coronavirus crisis, people could not go to work abroad. They’re now being informed by the Belgian Ministry of Finances that they have to prove that they work in The Netherlands with receipts from restaurants and similar papers, if they wish to fall under Dutch tax law and not Belgian. In other words, you’re required to spend money to prove that you work abroad, while colleagues living in The Netherlands can just bring sandwiches with their favourite filling from home. I think that’s madness even now, but even more so in 2021, during the global pandemic.'
Hageman agrees that The Netherlands is more inclined to help think towards a solution. 'We have even received directives from the government to work in an explicitly Flanders-facing way. But at the moment that we as a region ask ‘OK, then give us a little more room to legislate’, we don’t always easily succeed. When it comes down to it, they often say "yes, but".'
Asked for an example, he points to the fact that Silke Vansant already highlighted: in Flanders, children go to school from two-and-a-half years old, whereas in The Netherlands they start at four. Because kindergarten in The Netherlands is significantly more expensive, many parents choose to enrol their children in Flemish nursery schools at a young age. 'Currently, we’re running a pilot project in which you can have your child attend school from two-and-a-half years old at an Integraal Kind Centrum (IKC) [Integral Child Centre], explains Hageman. “We received a subsidy for this, and it’s successful; in 2025 they want to introduce it Netherlands-wide. Only our funding dries up at the end of 2023. So there’s a year between those dates during which we have no money. That’s priority 1,265 for them. An awful lot happens in education, and from their perspective, this is only a small problem in a border region where not many people live.'
No longer facing away from the border
Although there are often stumbling blocks, the Zeelandic education ambassador continues to believe in border-breaking collaboration. 'On both sides of the border, we are organising training days for educators. How educational would it be if those on the Flemish side could give workshops about the issues they specialise in, and vice-versa? That barely happens. The border is in people’s heads, the other side is unknown and unloved.'
Together with Henk de Koeyer, Hageman is trying to change this. From within the Zeelandic-Flemish educational organization Elevantio, De Koeyer leads the The borderless school and Learning without Borders projects. In the former, schools exchange experience and expertise; schools involved include those in Zelzate, Maldegem and Stekene in Flanders, and Ede and Westdorpe on the Zeelandic side.
The borderless school is a response to De Koeyer’s observation that during orientation meetings, educators from the Dutch side of the border wanted to learn more about the co-teaching methods in the ascendency in Flanders. 'Briefly put, this is where two teachers will run a class together”, explains De Koeyer. “One teacher gives the lesson, and the other offers the children support. Co-teaching is really on the rise in Belgium, while in The Netherlands it’s not so widespread.'
Flemish and Dutch teachers meet in Terneuzen for sessions on cooperative learning.
On the Flemish side, interests lie especially in the Dutch experiences with cooperative learning and working with weeklong learning projects. On a sunny day in April, educators from both sides of the border sit together in the Children’s Centre ‘de Oude Vaart’ in Terneuzen. Two teachers from The Netherlands introduce their colleagues to "cooperative forms of work", like "positive gossiping", invented by American education guru Spencer Kagan. They get straight down to practicing. On little pieces of paper, they write down things they like to do, along with their name. Then they walk through the classroom, telling each other the things they have noted down, and swap papers, each time becoming another person, whom they must enthusiastically introduce to a classmate.
Cooperative learning is proven to be effective, say the experience experts from Terneuzen. 'The most important thing is that it’s good for the social skills of the children. Even the children who feel uneasy in class discussions find this comfortable. It increases their involvement.' The Flemish educators are enthusiastic. 'I really want to try this out with my class', says one.
'We were facing away from the border because we always thought: we should look at the other schools in our own country, because the education there is the same', says De Koeyer. “Through this project, we have started to turn ourselves around and to try to bring the best of both worlds together.”